At this time of year, football fans with a conscience find themselves in a strange situation. We know FIFA is corrupt to the bone; we know that Football Associations are run by imperialist crooks. The people who administer the game are famously sexist, famously racist. We know that they are disgusted by the multitude whose happiness they exploit. At a recent conference on the sport, for example, a FIFA representative responded to a scholar’s paper on the problem of “white elephants” by describing the people to build them as “foolish.” He was obnoxious, but was he wrong? Are we surprised by his attitude, or by the fact that he feels entitled to express such open contempt for the miserable schemers who collaborate with FIFA’s overlords? We know that the FIFA World Cup is awful – and yet we tune in.
Because, of course, The World Cup is a spectacular event. Already, headlines about match fixing and worse have been replaced by headlines about underperformance, cynical play, unfair calls and other staples from football’s story cycle. In its inevitability, in its unavoidable nature we sense something of the World Cup’s ideological power. To call for the end of the World Cup: is that not an attack on happiness itself?
FIFA exists for this event alone. The World Cup is not a tournament, really; it is an economy and FIFA regulates its marketplace by ensuring that players play on something green and expensive, in front of synthetic crowds who are stripped of their drums and trumpets and made to sit down. FIFA makes the game into a currency. Every game looks like every other game, whether it is played in Rio de Janeiro or Johannesburg or Berlin. (Perhaps, however, not Manaus.)
Resistance to the World Cup, abolition of the World Cup – it is necessary and yet for football fans and even FIFA critics it is almost unimaginable. Nothing short of a full-scale revolution will bring it to a stop – is that what we are rooting for? People who can no longer afford the price of entry into a host city’s stadium take to the streets; they are replaced in the stands by a mass of silent witnesses. Which struggle will we see on the television – the one inside the stadium, or the one outside of it?
The football critic who would try to think of a world outside the World Cup is faced with a unique set of problems. The World Cup has a stranglehold on the presentation of football as “the global game.” But the pleasure promised to us by the mega-event is rooted outside the stadium, and outside of FIFA’s reach. The ordinary forms of joy we feel on the pitch are cited by nearly every advertisement that swarms the World Cup. An ad for a shoe or a television set, or soda or hamburgers will feature children threading a ball through the crowded narrow alleys of some nameless slum. Kids chase that ball to pop music one might hear in Atlanta, Montevideo, Seoul or Marseille. They are happy to be alive. What fan hasn’t had a taste of the happiness cited by such ads? The absolute joy of a weekly game with friends – the sort of game in which even the bickering is fun. That happiness is fleeting – the game can teach you how to live with that: you have to make yourself available to that pleasure by showing up hung-over, in the rain, in the hot sun. But what do we show up for, when we turn on our television sets?
The discourse of “the beautiful game” romances the idea that in poverty one’s pleasures have a certain nobility. It is one of the most cynical features of the mega event: a neo-liberal fantasy about the joy of the poor functions as an alibi for an inhuman economy in which stadiums are built not as homes for a team and its fans, but as sets for a handful of televised events; in which clubs are mortgaged into abstraction; in which the obscenity of one player’s income is dwarfed by the cosmic scale of the team-owner’s wealth. The identification of the game with keywords like “universal,” “global” and “beautiful” papers over the exclusion of women from this world. It celebrates the provincialism which assumes that there is no place on earth indifferent to this sport. It turns the scholar of the sport’s globalism into expert testimony justifying development schemes. The larger and the more inclusive these events become, the more media space they take up, the more public resources they use up – and the worse things gets. Resources are not redistributed around the World Cup; they are concentrated and absorbed by a ministry of corruption. This is not the view of the football extremist. To assert such a thing is not even interventionist. It is a given. What have I written here that hasn’t been said by Eduardo Galeano, years ago? Or by our grandparents?
The tournament is sold to us as the story of a level playing field from which a few deserving souls might be elevated to something more spectacular than equal access to opportunity. As if the latter were a given in our lives, and not, in fact, the elusive aim of an ongoing struggle. The level playing field of a bright green square of uniform grass produces a world of losers. What keeps the World Cup in place? What keeps national associations under FIFA’s sway?Who on earth really wants yet another tournament that concludes with a cynical exchange of fouls by two teams we imagine as enemies but who are, really, two sides of the same coin? Where, the fan asks, do we turn for a glimpse of some other possibility?